Tag Archives: teaching

The Unfamiliar: Archaeology and the Uncertain Edge

Last winter I submitted an article to the Anthropology Graduate student journal at the University of Edinburgh, The Unfamiliar, to be included in their second issue. The print version is already out and I look forward to the online version. I chose to write about drawing conventions in MoLAS archaeology, particularly the uncertain edge. It caused particular problems as I submitted gifs to illustrate the process, not realizing that there would be a print version, as films were also solicited. So I had to re-send stills from the gifs for the print publication…funny stuff, digital archaeology.

Anyway, here is the article. I’ll link to the online version when it comes through.

Archaeology and the Uncertain Edge

The author, drawing a multi-context plan in the field, 2012. Photograph by Ruth Hatfield.

Until this point the line had been steady, confident, true. The sandy, shelly deposit curved left, then right, was truncated by a later fire pit, and then continued west-ward and my pencil recorded all of the contours in a perfect 1:20 centimeter representation. But then the deposit lost its hard, defining edge, feathering out, getting mixed and lost in an interface with the underlying dirt. Where did the sandy shelly deposit stop? Where did the layer beneath it begin? My pencil hesitated, then drew a series of quick zig-zags, reminiscent of a line of heartbeats on a heart monitor from a dramatic TV scene, arcing around my deposit. Upon excavating the deposit, I may go back to the drawing, erase the zig-zags and replace them with a single, smooth line. But for now, the edge was ambiguous, open for interpretation, and so I used the drawing convention of a zig-zag, indicating an uncertain edge.

As Tim Ingold (2011:177) notes, archaeology is one of the few specialist disciplines where drawing is still valued as part of our daily practice, as as a way to record, understand and engage with the materials of the past. We represent skeletons, landscapes, walls, houses, pottery, rocks, and stratigraphic sections in technical, measured to scale drawings. While some of the illustrations end up in our lectures in publications, the majority of these drawings are by archaeologists, for archaeologists, and remain in our grey literature. Still, drawing is a vital part of the most important skill in archaeology—learning how to see, or what Charles Goodwin (1994) calls “professional vision.”

By drawing we intimately inspect our subject, gaining knowledge that transcends taking a photograph or even a laser scan of the same feature. Learning how to discern the stratigraphic relationships in archaeology is a difficult task and “drawing a definite line around something rests on reserves of professional confidence and interpretative skill” (Wickstead 2008:14).  To add to the complexity, there are very few universally agreed-upon drawing conventions. I was trained in both Americanist and British styles of excavation and the accompanying drawing conventions wildly differ across the Atlantic.  Americanist archaeologists draw the sections of their meter-squares with little tufts of grass on the top, English archaeologists use hachures to indicate slope across their wide-open trenches. While American-style archaeological technical drawing has few conventions, English archaeologists have standardized lines and rugged tracing paper called permatrace so that they can overlay the drawings of the deposits in stratigraphic order.  These differences aside, learning to see and draw archaeological deposits remains at the core of our profession.

This most important skill, that of learning to see and describe archaeological deposits is almost impossible to teach within the confines of a classroom. We rely on field schools to impart this information, taking students to archaeological excavations so they can interact with the archaeology. Sometimes while training students we inscribe the ground with our trowels, teaching them how to see subtle differences in color or texture. While working in red dirt with colorblind archaeologists in Texas I had to use sound to establish the difference between solid ground and a posthole, tap-tap-tapping my way across the ground with the butt of my trowel until there was a slight change in tenor. Tap-tap-tap-thud-thud-tap-tap-tap, there was the hole that the Caddo dug for the center post of their structures. Still, there are times that we are uncertain, even after many years of experience. During these times the solid line jolts back to life, a jagged heartbeat of subjectivity in a profession that still struggles for objectivity even after postmodernity.

This small selection of photographs and gifs that I have taken during my time as a field archaeologist in Qatar attempt to demonstrate the concept of the uncertain edge in archaeology. Perhaps as a parallel to teaching field archaeology in a classroom, demonstrating the uncertain edge through photography might be an impossible task; therefore I have chosen to augment a selection of the photographs, sometimes directly inscribing them with the Museum of London Archaeological Service drawing conventions. In this I hope to convey insight into the craft of archaeology and to the interpretive process during excavation.

At times we directly inscribe the dirt in order to teach students, or even to remind ourselves. This is not favored amongst many, and certainly I do not do it before I take photographs of the deposit. I scored this deposit to show my workmen where to begin digging. Photograph by Colleen Morgan.

Click on the gif below to see it animated.

Some features on archaeological excavations seem obvious, even when the features are intercut. There are four fire pits here; in the single context methodology we record the cut of the fire pit and the fill of the fire pit as two separate events. Photograph by Colleen Morgan.

(Click on the following gif to view a higher quality version…that is actually animated.)

Larger surfaces can be more ambiguous; the sunlight, differential drying, and relative cleanliness can all make deposits look very similar or radically different. I have indicated the uncertain edges of this deposit, though I have since excavated the area and found more certain edges. In this gif the dot-dash-dot lines indicate the limit of excavation and the double dot-dash-double dot lines indicate truncation lines. In single context drawing, each of these cuts and deposits are drawn on individual sheets of permatrace, then overlain to replicate the stratigraphy of the site. Photograph by Colleen Morgan.

References cited:

Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being alive: essays on movement, knowledge and description. London: Routledge.

Goodwin, Charles. 1994. “Professional Vision”. American Anthropologist. 96 (3).

Wickstead, Helen. 2008. “Drawing Archaeology,” In Drawing – the purpose, ed. Duff, Leo, and Phil Sawdon. Bristol: Intellect Books. 13-29.

So You’re an Archaeologist? – on Youtube

Back in 2009 David Cohen and I made a video for the Afghanistan exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. This video was meant to accompany the mostly interpretation-free display of gold and human remains; we wanted to give faces to archaeologists and convey what it is that we do. The museum provided us a list of guiding questions and we filmed responses from UC Berkeley archaeologists. Anyway, I finally had a moment to upload some of the videos to Youtube, and here they are for your viewing/teaching pleasure.

The infamous …and I’m an archaeologist video.

What is the best thing about being an archaeologist?

What is the worst thing about being an archaeologist?

What do archaeologists do?

What are some common misconceptions about archaeology? (Show this to your friends and family who keep asking about dinosaurs and gold)

And my favorite: What type of artifacts do you find?

Dead Birds and Penis Sheaths

Part of grad student professionalization as nascent professors is developing your own class syllabi.  I already have a bit of experience in this from teaching Ancient World History at San Quentin, and Ruth allows a fair amount of my input into the classes we teach together.  Still, it’s good to have a few stock syllabi, especially for job applications and the like.

I’ve been trying to develop a syllabus for a class I’d really like to teach and this involves watching a lot (more) ethnographic films.  I’ve seen quite a few already, but access to these films is restricted at UC – we have to go into the media room and watch them in uncomfortable little cubicles.  Needless to say, my further research has been fairly limited.  That is, until UC gained trial access to Alexander Street Press’ Ethnographic Video Online.  It’s a pay model, but I’m really pleased with the format and the interactive follow-along transcript accompanying the movie.  Our trial access runs until May 4th and I hope it is extended, but in the meantime I’ve been soaking up as much ethnographic film as I can stomach.

Earlier this week I watched Robert Gardener’s 1964 classic Dead Birds. He filmed it among the Dani of West Papua, who at the time he characterized as having an “almost Neolithic culture.”  The film follows a day-in-the-life-of narrative structure, following the lives of a Dani man, woman, and child.  The narrative is done entirely in voice-over, with Robert Gardener’s solemn, commanding voice telling us the inner dialogues and motivations that drive the on-screen action of these people.  He notably characterizes the child Pua as being lazy, smaller, and more awkward than his playmates.  Poor Pua.

In 2007, Robert Gardener released a book about the film, Making Dead Birds, which includes his extensive notes while taking the film, along with an amazing collection of letters and photographs of his time with the Dani.  It reveals the impact that his stay had on the people, and of the reactions they had to his film, many years later.  In all, it’s a great resource, especially for the class that I’m planning.

One small consideration that adds to the challenge of teaching this material is the Dani’s gourd penis sheaths.  They’re pretty standard ethnographic fare–Peter Ucko published a comparative study of them in 1969 that is a classic (and at times hilarious) study of material culture.  They are a somewhat distracting feature of the film, with different morphological details and attachment schemes sometimes upstaging the interaction between people.  A higher-minded anthropologist would probably disdain my distraction, but it brings to mind cultivation strategies, processing times, and the possibility of even recognizing such a thing archaeologically.  So, Dead Birds makes the cut. I hope I get the chance to teach it!

Tumblr in the Classroom

I mentioned at the beginning of the semester that we were tumblr blogging our classes, the Serious Gaming seminar, 39B and Archaeology and the Media: Film, 136i.  Tumblr is a simplified, speed-blogging service that provides a place to “tumble” your thoughts. I appreciate it as a sort of visual short-hand while I’m doing research–I tend to tumble what I’m reading about or thinking about, select quotes and photographs. It makes a nice, general record of your research trajectory.  I like that it is an explicit acknowledgement of the marginalia created during the construction of knowledge. Anyway, so we decided to try it out for our classes, with mixed results.

http://136i.tumblr.com

It was great for 136i. The Archaeology and the Media classes tend to be structured discussion sessions, where a lot of examples of movies, television, online video, and other forms of media come up in class. The tumblr blog was a way to track class discussion in a non-intrusive way. It helped that there were two of us–me and Ruth–so one of us could take over while the other typed. If I held the seminar by myself, I might arrange for round-robin of responsibility among the students for tumbling class discussions. Though I have a hard time on occasion with the “multi-tasking” that goes on during class.  Having folks referencing online sources and their own previously typed notes can be handy, but I’ve had to ask for “laptops down” many times this semester.

In any case, I found Tumblr to be not only a great “rapid-repository” for references during class, but also appended clips from movies discussed in the readings for students to reference before class. Most of the students had never seen such movies as Double Indemnity and Stagecoach.  I was also able to provide a small collection of important links to address issues such as copyright, and finding creative commons-licensed music for their movies. I even threw in a few “fun” links to archaeology videos that circulate among academics, but aren’t often seen by students.

http://39b.tumblr.com/

The Serious Games and Virtual Worlds for Archaeology Tumblr blog didn’t fare quite as well. Perhaps it was because so much of the class was oriented toward trying to manage awkward CAD systems in Second Life, or that the readings were primarily about Catalhoyuk or other history games. The students also were not quite as engaged, and did not offer as many examples from their own experience for us to reference on the blog. This class was also completely new, and we had to wrangle material about a subject that is not a fully formed field of inquiry quite yet.

In any case, I could recommend using tumblr for both smaller seminar settings, and for larger classes when there is a TA available to follow the discussion with links to examples and salient points.  We are not quite to full immersion–live blogging a lecture so that a powerpoint isn’t necessary, but we’re getting closer. I’m guessing that in the next decade we’ll have it being done for us–word clouds, reference images, and networks of meaning appearing behind us as we lecture.  That might actually get the attention of the students…for a second or two.

Internment Camp Yearbook

awsdone

In our Introduction to Archaeology classes, we give our students a choice over the site that they want to focus on for their final project.  These can run the gamut from Teotihuacan to the Gault Site in Texas.  Students gather materials about the site and present this information to the whole class, and the final exam covers details from these presentations.  The success of these presentations varies widely, generally according to how interested the students become in the topic, and if they can maintain group coherence.  Each year that I’ve offered the choice of Manzanar as one of the sites, the undergraduates who chose the site become extraordinarily excited and interested in the place.  Even though most of them grew up in California, few have learned about the Japanese American Internment camps within their own state, each of which has an extensive historical record to draw upon.

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So, imagine my surprise and keen interest when I ran across the Internment Camp Yearbook scans on boingboing.  Aquila, published by the Tri-State High School in 1944, documents a year in the life of internees in Tule Lake War Relocation Center in Newell, California.  It’s hard to equate these smiling teens, slick with hair pomade and starched collars with prison camps.  But look under their names–it’s where they lived before the war.  Where they were taken from, after being forced to sell or give away their homes, possessions, and businesses.  Only 60 years ago, in the United States of America.

The students get this though.  In their presentations they talk about the oral histories, examine the archaeological evidence against the documentary evidence, lay out a plan for future interpretation of the site.  And then, sometimes, they do a bit more.  Unprompted by me, the last part of the group presentation from 2007 drew parallels between the treatment of a perceived enemy population during WWII and the treatment of Muslims in America, post 9-11.  The last slide was of Guantánamo Bay.

Needless to say, I’ll be using this yearbook next time around.

Scans from “Aquila“, in the Guy & Marguerite Cook Niesei Collection at the University of the Pacific.

Skuldrudgery

Things are shaping up quite well as I head into the semester. I am working hard on my final field statements, have mostly finished (to my surprise!) my dissertation prospectus, and have been cooking up a Wenner Gren. On top of all of this, I finally got together the journal article that I want to submit to Archaeological Method & Theory, but I’m not sure it shouldn’t actually be two slightly different articles. Sorry to be opaque–I’ll post it all when it comes closer to actually happening.

I met with Ruth and the other GSIs on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming semester. It should be pretty interesting–heavy on the media literacy, light on mid-terms, which is nice, but can be difficult for the more rigid students who want to be lectured at, take notes, and regurgitate periodically.

I’ve been dealing with some Catalhoyuk material again though, which always makes me dream about the place. Browns and yellows and stressful politics, oh my!

More interesting than my academic dealings–the Library of Congress has partnered with Flickr to get public tagging for their archived photographs. I love it–academic/public institutions have long been building web-islands of information, and getting some of this primary data out into a more public sphere gives life to the database, ensures that it will be used and therefore valued. There’s already been a massive effort to tag these photos and I wonder if folksonomies would solve some of the problems that archaeologists have been having with assigning conceptual terminology we need for generating comparative data. Archaeologists should create their own archives, but should also update to social networking sites like Flickr not only in the public interest, but to get more perspectives on their data.

But, back to the LOC project, you can find the main page here:

http://flickr.com/commons

And the photos are completely gorgeous:

I wonder, as time goes on and I travel even more, if my love for the American West and its people and history will only deepen.

Social Networking and Teaching

I put in some time today creating sections and assigning them to myself and the other GSIs (graduate student instructors or teaching assistants, in Berkeley-speak) on our automated class management system in preparation for the coming semester. I’m excited to help teach Introduction to Archaeology again, and it’s interesting to be the head GSI this time. I’ll try not to let all the power and glory get to my head. ha.

I also took the time to update my section syllabus, which is a supplementary syllabus to the main class, wherein I make my specific expectations plain. It’s not really all that different, but I do quote Kai Chang’s powerful polemic on political correctness, specifically:

“The phrase “politically correct” can be used in two distinct ways: either with its original literal meaning, or with the mocking sarcasm that’s common these days. As it’s commonly used, “PC” is a deliberately imprecise expression (just try finding or writing a terse, precise definition) because its objective isn’t to communicate a substantive idea, but simply to sneer and snivel about the linguistic and cultural burdens of treating all people with the respect and sensitivity with which they wish to be treated. Thus, the Herculean effort required to call me “Asian American” rather than “chink” is seen as a concession to “the PC police”, an unsettling infringement on the free-wheeling conversation of, I suppose, “non-chinks”. (…) Underlying every complaint of “PC” is the absurd notion that members of dominant mainstream society have been victimized by an arbitrarily hypersensitive prohibition against linguistic and cultural constructions that are considered historical manifestations of bigotry.”

I find that stating this up front can really be helpful for discussions about the human past in a class full of people who are so used to cultural insensitivity (and their own positions of privilege) that they hardly notice it any more.

I also added a new bit about social networking sites:

Punctuality, Cell Phone Use, and Social Networking Sites: Be punctual, silence your cell phone, and I will attempt to do the same. As a rule, I do not accept Facebook or Myspace friend requests from current students.

If that sounds a bit abrupt, I’ll be going over the syllabus in class with them so I can make the requisite “you keep your weekends and I’ll keep mine” joke. This forestalls the awkwardness that comes when you accept or reject ‘friendships’ online and still have to grade the person. Maybe I’m too formal, and I know that online privacy is nonexistant, but in this situation a little decorum goes a long way. I’m relatively easy to find, and I’ve made my peace with that (under the precepts of Hamilakis’ figure of the public intellectual…though I could hardly claim that title) and my blogging performance takes a more generalized audience into account. Besides, I really don’t want to know which of my students was doing keg stands the day before the final.

Anyway, quoting blogs and defining online relationships right on the syllabus…it’s a brave new world of teaching.

Here’s my section syllabus, for the curious. I still need to update it in accordance to the general syllabus (I don’t think we’re using the CDROM again, it was utter trash) but you get the general idea.

Section Syllabus

Project Archaeology

I attended a Project Archaeology workshop on Saturday and Sunday (10+ hours each day, including commute!) to train to become a local facilitator. This means that I will be certified to train local teachers on how to bring archaeology into their curriculum. This has become increasingly difficult with all the standards that were put into place with our favorite president, W, and his horrific “no child left behind” program. I’m not sure how often I will actually be hosting workshops, but it isn’t an awful thing to have on my resume, and the workbook has a lot of great exercises so we don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel when we’re doing outreach.

Speaking of these exercises, I was struck by their very Americanist portrayal of stratigraphy:
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I know it is an oversimplification, but the objects are independent of the stratigraphy–floating in space instead of respecting the ground layer they once sat on. I’d love to see the British equivalent–maybe I’ll hit up my favorite informant for visualizations from the Old World.

Also, note to self: FIND MORE MAMMOTH SKULLS.

Outreach!

As I’ve mentioned before, we are required to do educational outreach each semester as a part of our graduate program. I rather enjoy it, though I like some forms (teaching a class at San Quentin) better than others (Cal Day). On Friday I had to fill in at the last minute for another grad student at the Julia Morgan School for Girls. We prepared a 1.5 hour introductory lecture, during which we generally introduced archaeology, then talked about our individual projects.

The school is a private middle school for girls, and while there are varying opinions about sex-segregation in schools, not to mention public vs. private, if I had the money and the inclination to have children, I would absolutely send my daughter to this school. The girls were smart and completely fearless and their instructors were engaged and happy to be there. I went to three different public middle schools in as many years, and spent most of my time ditching class so I could hang out at the library (!) or go smoke behind the bleachers.

Anyway, after the lecture we brought out the dig kits. The kits are basically squares made out of wooden planks, overlaid by blankets, then filled with dried corn (organic kitty litter) and artifacts. We divided the 1×1 squares into quads and let them go at it, encouraging them to plan map the artifacts before yanking them out of “context”.

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Then they’d bag and tag the artifacts and come up with an interpretation based on the artifacts they’d find. After writing up the interpretation, we had them give a short presentation.

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The interpretations were fun to listen to and the enthusiasm of the girls was contagious. All in all, a good day for outreach in archaeology.